WASHINGTON -- President Obama defended himself Thursday against complaints from residents of New Orleans and the rest of the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast who feel recovery help has not come soon enough from his administration.
Making his first stop as president in the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina more than four years ago, Obama appeared at a town hall gathering to hear residents' concerns in person. One man asked why federal damage reimbursements are coming so slowly and in amounts far less than needed.
"I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled and dimed in our recovery?" the man said.
The president replied that his administration was "working as hard as we can, as quickly as we can."
"I know since a lot of these problems have been going on since Katrina, people understandably feel impatient," Obama said, addressing hundreds of people who won tickets in an Internet lottery to attend. "On the other hand, a lot of these things are not going to be fixed tomorrow."
The storm killed some 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi -- and damage has been estimated at roughly $40 billion. The damage is still starkly visible in New Orleans, in the blighted neighborhoods of creaky houses, boarded-up businesses, structure after structure awaiting demolition and critical recovery work not yet commenced.
Katrina was a natural disaster that also turned into a political one for former President George W. Bush. His administration was widely criticized for a slow initial response to the crisis. Local officials complained that the recovery didn't go much better later on, with the Bush administration often refusing to pay for work they felt should have qualified for federal aid.
Obama, who once accused Bush of standing by "while a major American city drowns," claimed progress since he entered the White House in January.
He cited reconstruction projects that have moved forward after stalling due to disagreements over whether the state or federal government would foot the bill, with officials working "around the clock to clean up red tape." The Federal Emergency Management Agency said that of the 120 Louisiana reconstruction projects that were stuck at the beginning of Obama's presidency, 76 have been resolved. This has sent more than $1.4 billion in additional federal aid to Louisiana.
Obama said officials from his administration have made 35 trips to the Gulf Coast since March -- and "not just to make appearances, but to listen and to learn and help you move forward."
The town hall took place after Obama stopped by a local school that he said was "doing much better" than four years ago.
Still, in opening remarks before a boisterous crowd at the University of New Orleans, the president acknowledged residents' frustration about the pace of recovery from the long-ago storm. Among the evidence: Across from the school Obama highlighted, firefighters work from a trailer, and a storm-shuttered community center awaits demolition.
"It's clear how far we have to go before we can call this recovery a success," Obama said, noting sewers and roads that still need repair, houses and hospitals that are still vacant and schools and neighborhoods still waiting to thrive.
"I promise you this ... we will not forget about New Orleans. We are going to keep on working. We will not forget about the Gulf Coast," Obama said.
He also promised better emergency preparation so that the kind of devastation wrought by the hurricane is never repeated. And he announced a new working group to coordinate restoration projects across the Gulf Coast.
Some residents have criticized Obama for making such a brief visit -- he was expected to be in and out of the city in just a few hours to fly to a Democratic Party fundraiser in San Francisco. People in Mississippi, which saw much of its coast pummeled to sticks by Katrina, were miffed that the president was skipping them altogether.
"I'm greatly disappointed," said Tommy Longo, mayor of Waveland, Miss., where almost every standing structure was destroyed or damaged. "There was no city hit harder than Waveland."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin defended the president. "People say he's going to be here a short little time, that's true," Nagin said. "Don't be fooled. This administration is focused on New Orleans."
The administration's recovery efforts have drawn praise from Republicans, too, including Gov. Bobby Jindal. Jindal has credited Obama's team with bringing a more practical and flexible approach to the process. "There's a sense of momentum and a desire to get things done," he said in August.
The White House had scheduled the town hall so Obama could field residents' concerns. However, of the half-dozen questions he took, only two were directly related to the storm. Others touched on Social Security, health care, climate, education and even, from a fourth-grade boy, the president's approval ratings. "Why does everyone hate you?" the boy asked.
While Obama was frequently cheered inside the event, roughly 150 demonstrators protested outside, some criticizing his health care plan.
"I'm a small business owner, and the things he has proposed are going to collapse my business," said Tom Clement, 63, who runs a small landscaping business in Baton Rouge.